The better Arizona Wildcats guard Nick Johnson gets, the more coach Sean Miller’s story gains steam.
Last summer, when top college basketball players all over the country were invited to be “counselors” or appear at other showcase events, Johnson stayed home involuntarily.
Miller has mentioned that fact nearly every time he’s been asked about Johnson in the past three weeks.
“There were a number of opportunities I really wanted him to get but no one wanted him to be a part of those opportunities,” Miller said. “I think he’s played with a chip on his shoulder in a healthy way.”
Having that chip has worked out pretty well so far. Johnson not only reached the 1,000-point club at Arizona on Thursday, during the Wildcats’ 91-68 win over ASU, but he’s also been the best overall player on the nation’s top-ranked team.
But there’s only one problem with that motivational trick. Johnson’s not under the radar anymore.
Just this week, Sporting News named Johnson to its five-man first-team midseason All-America team. Dick Vitale named him one of six on his “all-Solid Gold” team.
And, earlier this month, SI.com moved Johnson to No. 9 on its “Wooden Watch” list, under a headline that read: “Nick Johnson leads No. 1 Arizona in offense, defense and attitude.”
So maybe nobody’s surprised that he takes the ball in for a late floater that gave UA the lead for good at UCLA. Or that he hit 6 of 9 field goals for a team-high 17 points in UA’s win over ASU, while using his internal springs to swat away a layup from dynamic ASU guard Jahii Carson.
Or that he is now on pace, if he returns for his senior season, to crack Arizona’s Top 10 in career scoring.
Johnson is the 48th player to score in four figures over his career at Arizona, and if he returns for his senior season, he could surpass the 1,765 that No. 10 Al Fleming scored between 1972-76.
Johnson could play another 50-60 games through the end of next season, and even 50 games at his current average of 16.3 would get him to 1,824. That would be seventh, just behind current UA assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, who had 1,849 between 1991-95.
Johnson is now sitting at 1,009 points, having hit the 1,000-point mark by taking a pass from Aaron Gordon and making a three-pointer with 7:14 left in the first half Thursday.
That angered exactly one non-ASU person at McKale Center.
“T.J. (McConnell) was kind of mad at me,” Johnson said. “He said he wanted to assist me on that 1,000th point. But it feels good to just be in that type of category here at Arizona.”
The power of Zeus
Arizona sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski lived up to his nickname Thursday not just by scoring 12 points and grabbing eight rebounds, but by flustering fellow 7-footer Jordan Bachynski of ASU.
Bachynski entered Thursday’s game averaging 12.7 points and 8.1 shots taken per game. Against Tarczewski and the Wildcats, he took three shots and made none of them, though he managed to go 3 for 4 from the free-throw line for a total of three points.
“He has become a great low-post defender,” Miller said of Tarczewski. “He’s smarter. Because of his physicality, with weight loss and transformation of his body, he’s able to move quicker and still be physical.
“It’s his quickness and intelligence and size inside that kind of anchors our defense. I felt when he didn’t play the two games (in December, after Tarczewski sprained an ankle at Michigan) and you feel it in a positive way when he’s back in. He does a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.”
He’s also modest. Tarczewski said it was his goal to keep Bachynski without a made basket, but added that teammates came down from the wings to help him out.
“It wasn’t only me,” he said.
Even with the rhythm of a 5-0 start in Pac-12 play, the Wildcats are embracing opportunity for some downtime this weekend. They won’t play again until Thursday against Colorado at McKale Center.
“I’m happy to get to rest,” Johnson said. “We get to recover.”
Miller indicated he wasn’t concerned that the Wildcats would suffer from the layoff, either.
“One of the many things this team has done well is at times like this we’ve tried to stay focused on the process,” he said. “Everything behind us is behind us, whether we won or lost. It’s a matter of how much better can we get in this week off leading to Colorado.
“It’s something we talked a lot about and our team has been responsible doing it. But also it’s good at this time of year to have a couple of days off. We were in L.A. for five days and all of a sudden you’re quickly into a game with ASU. The seven-day break comes at a good time for us.”